Friday, August 2, 2019

Birling Gap and The Seven Sisters

I have always been fascinated by the white cliffs of Dover any time I’ve been on a cross channel ferry. They seem to appear over the shimmering waves out of nowhere, and they are so incredibly English!  All bluebirds and Vera Lynn etc.

Scottish cliffs, by comparison, are jaggy and pointy and grey, as tough as old boots. The white cliffs of the south coast of England are incredibly delicate, and retreating from the water.

I was on tour, down in that part of the world, and I knew the Seven Sisters country park was only fourteen minutes’ drive from Eastbourne where we were staying. We were en route to Harrogate for the Crime Writing Festival, so we thought a wee stop in the car park, a walk around the top of cliffs and we would then be on our way, back north.

As with most well laid plans, it didn’t quite work out like that.  I had already lost my mobile phone, with all my touring details marked safely in the calendar.  (?)
And none of the places we stayed at had any internet that was in any way usable so I couldn’t get onto my email to check events that way.

So on that misty morning, we set off thinking that we were going to park on a cliff top car park, take a few photos and get on our way.

The car park seemed quite ‘inland’. It took us an hour to walk to the cliff, and when we got there, we were at the bottom of it not at the top, at a place called the Birling Gap. Which I had never heard of.

It was a nice walk, somewhat spoiled by a vicious wind and the fact I had new shoes on, walking shoes mind,  and ended up with very bloodied and blistered feet which I am still moaning about.

The cliffs here are made from a build-up of Dead Sea creatures who passed away about 100 million years ago. The cliffs were, at that time, the sea bed. This composition makes them both dense and fragile.

By 10,000 BC the English Channel was formed after the last ice age. As the ice caps melted the water carved a channel between France and England, a very early form of Brexit. By 4000 BC, there was   settlement of Neolithic people living in the area and by 43AD, the Romans had invaded.

It has always been a treacherous piece of water, effective for smuggling for those who knew it well.  You can see the height of the cliff, yet the water slopes gently, so smugglers boats might have been well hidden, maybe even protected on a dark stormy night.

A lighthouse was built at Belle Tout in 1832, and it’s now a small hotel with 360 views. In  1878 the cottages  for the coastguard were built, there used to be eight in all,  and I presume they were built quite far back from the cliff edge. That edge has been eroding constantly over the years and some of the cottages have had to be demolished before they fall into the sea. The first one in 1973, the second one in 1994, the third in 2002 and the fourth in 2014.

 They looked a bit precarious even from the distance we were at!
Another little, but important bit of history, is that the battle of Britain was fought in the skies over the Birling Gap, and German bombers making their way up to London probably used the cliffs, and this gap to get their bearings as it was so easily seen from the sky.

On the walk down, a sanctuary for wildlife. Reminiscent of the Fens in Cambridge.

The wind was whipping up waves, even in the inland water.

Pictures like this make me think of deposition sites.

At last, a few of the cliffs.

Some cottages, clinging to the top of the receding cliff.

The gap in the cliffs

The cliffs!

Close or far far away?

Here's Alan  standing at the foot of the cliff.

Alan again, giving an idea of scale.

And there he is again!

We witnessed  a small cliff fall, the bright white deposits that look like  small snowballs were half way up the cliff two minutes earlier. 

On the way back, the weather had improved, a group of brightly coloured kayakers were out, laughing and joking in the smirr.

Caro Ramsay


  1. Hang on a moment, Caro. So, you saw a cliff fall, and then made poor Alan stand right at the base of the crumbling cliffs while you moved carefully back to a safer distance, all on the pretence of getting a better photo. Hmm, thinks...

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